Bible, Theology and Worldview: A Conversation

Paul Hiebert has been on the leading edge of evangelical missiological thinking. His life work represents the faithful integration of cultural anthropology, philosophy, theology and missiology. Throughout his works, several important themes emerge: epistemological foundations for theology and missiology, the import of cultural anthropology for cross-cultural ministry, and the necessity of worldview transformation of both the witness and receptor of the gospel, just to name a few. Among other things, he introduced evangelical missiology to critical realism, critical contextualization, important discussions on form/meaning, set-theory, and incarnational ministry.  Moreover, he initiated the call for missionaries to work towards the fourth self in their discipline—self-theologizing.

David Bosch is another missiological heavyweight. Bosch served the Dutch Reformed Church and the people of South Africa, both black and white, during the tumultuous latter days of Apartheid. In that sociological morass he developed his system of missiological thinking that any many ways made him the missiologist par excellence of the past half century. Bosch’s work, including Transforming Mission, made him in many ways to contemporary missiology as Plato is to philosophy. All missiology since then has been a footnote to his work.

When it comes to theology and worldview, both Hiebert and Bosch agree that though younger churches theologized prior to the twentieth century, the paternalistic mission stations frowned upon such activities out of fear of syncretism.[1] Thus, even for those missions that developed the indigenous nature of the local church in its government, support, and propagation, the younger churches still felt the burden of “theological colonialism.”[2] Both Hiebert and Bosch recognized the influence of the enlightenment on western theology as a primary cause of these actions.[3] Just as they identified the problem, they both proposed new methods for overcoming it.[4]

Initially, Hiebert argued for the emergence of “an international hermeneutical community.”[5] He also believed that such a process would lead to “a supracultural theology”: “this metatheological process, carried out on the international level, may lead us to what Western theologians have long sought—a growing consensus on theological absolutes.”[6] Elsewhere, Hiebert also called for both a “global church…in which Christians living under the authority of Scripture become a missionary community, calling people to faith and challenging the evils around them,”[7] which, in another work, he had described in terms of “interdependence.”[8] Finally, Hiebert argues that “is is important that the church globally seek to articulate a biblical worldview.”[9] His proposal for achieving this lofty goal is through dialogue—“It is important that missionaries, theologians, and church leaders meet and dialogue with one another, both to learn to see their own worldviews and also to recognize alternative Christian responses and, in the process, to read the Scriptures in a new light as transforming all worldviews we bring with us.”[10]

Bosch, in his discussion of “mission as inculturation,” argues that the way forward is through the recognition that “a plurality of cultures presupposes a plurality of theologies and therefore, for Third-World churches, a farewell to a Eurocentric approach.”[11] In this approach, missionaries “no longer participate as the ones who have all the answers but are learners like everybody else.”[12] Inculturation focuses on the work of the Holy Spirit upon local, incarnational communities in a holistic manner. Like Hiebert, Bosch argues that inculturation must include the change of the entire worldview: “it is impossible to isolate elements and customs and ‘christianize’ these…only where the encounter is inclusive will this experience be a force animating and renewing the culture from within.”[13]

Given the similarities between Hiebert and Bosch and their solutions, there are a couple of  noteworthy differences. First, Bosch argues that “there is not eternal theology, no theologia perennis which may play the referee over “local theologies.”[14] While he does not equate any local theology with the global theology advocates, Hiebert is more optimistic in that he argues there can be a singular global theology.[15] Second, Bosch, while affirming Hiebert’s “universal hermeneutical community,” argues that the one, catholic church is not “an idealistic supra-cultural entity.”[16] Depending on what Bosch meant by idealistic, Hiebert apparently disagrees—“together we need to develop credible biblical alternatives to the specific worldviews in which we find ourselves. In the process we become a transcultural community made up of transcultural people—people who can live in different cultures but whose real identity is increasingly that of an outsider-insider in all of them.”[17] Overall, while Bosch is willing to live with “creative tension” between local theologies, Hiebert thinks the resolution of this tension is necessary for “Christians to provide a credible alternative to the existing paradigms of the world.”[18]

Which of them is correct?

Is there a singular biblical worldview? Many?

Is worldview the best term to use?

How does the answer to those questions affect theology?

Is there a theologia perennis?

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[1] Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 35–51. David Bosch credits Hiebert for bringing “self-theologizing” to the forefront in missiological theorizing. Bosch references Hiebert’s original article, later published in the above book; David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series, No. 16 (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), 451–7.

[2] Hiebert, Reflections on Missiological Issues, 46.

[3] Cf, Ibid., 45–6; Bosch, Transforming Mission, 456.

[4] It is probably no accident that Hiebert entitled his final work as Transforming Worldviews as juxtaposed with Bosch’s Transforming Mission.

[5] Hiebert, Reflections on Missiological Issues, 48. Emphasis original. See Bosch, Transforming Mission, 457.

[6] Hiebert, Reflections on Missiological Issues, 102, 103.

[7] Hiebert, Missiological Implications of Epistemological Shifts: Affirming Truth in a Modern/Postmodern World, Christian Mission and Modern Culture Series (Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity Press, 1999), 112–4.

[8] Paul G. Hiebert and Eloise Hiebert Meneses, Incarnational Ministry: Planting Churches in Band, Tribal, Peasant, and Urban Societies (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 166. Cf. Hiebert, Reflections on Missiological Issues, 87–8.

[9] Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews: An Anthropological Understanding of How People Change (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008),  321.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Bosch, Transforming Mission, 452.

[12] Ibid., 453.

[13] Ibid., 455.

[14] Ibid., 456.

[15] Hiebert, Implications of Epistemological Shifts, 112–4.

[16] Bosch, Transforming Mission, 457.

[17] Hiebert, Transforming Worldviews, 321–2.

[18] Ibid., 319.

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